Charles Witherspoon III has spent 85 of his 87 years living on his family’s Brentwood farm commonly referred to as the Holt property.
Charles Witherspoon III has spent 85 of his 87 years living on his family’s Brentwood farm, commonly referred to as the Holt property.
The land has remained relatively unchanged since the first members of the Holt family, John and his wife Isabella, settled on what is now Crockett Road in the early 1800s.
Scattered throughout the land are relics of a past life: rusted and misplaced farm equipment, broken down machinery and deserted livestock pens.
In the pasture to the back of Witherspoon’s property, the old sawmill is crumbling under its own weight. A few idle horses and donkeys remain, sedated in the summer sun; spellbound by an air of sleepiness that’s seems to be cast all over the land.Ã‚Â
The grass is overgrown amongst the family cemetery; thistles and weeds have taken over the names of those who have worked the land.
The stately Wildwood mansion, built in 1836, has fallen into disrepair; vines grasp at the mansion walls. The doors are boarded shut, and through broken windows vultures come and go for shelter within its walls.
But most striking is the sense of space, a rarity among the encroachingÃ‚Â subdivisions that surround Witherspoon’s property.
Within the 257-acres is an unkempt beauty only present when nature has reclaimed the land. And like most southern plantations, there is balance of nobility and horror attached to its history.
Before long it will be hard to imagine any of it ever existed.
In April, Witherspoon decided to sell the property to Pearl Street Partners LLC for $12 million, and the new owners are expected to soon request an Open Space Residential Development rezoning for construction of a new subdivision.
As Witherspoon witnessed Brentwood’s growth and transformation over the past century, he says the time has finally come for his own part in the change.
Charles Witherspoon was just 2 years old when he moved into the Wildwood mansion on his family’s farm with his father and mother, Charles Witherspoon, Jr. and Kate Holt. His uncle and aunt, John P. Holt and O’Dell Holt, were already working the land, which at the time totaled approximately 1,200 acres.
That was in 1929 and the United States was on the brink of a Great Depression, Adolf Hitler was a mere German political aspirant, and Frank Sinatra was a decade away from his recording debut.
|Charles Witherspoon III|
However, all that seemed far away to a family deeply seeded in the rolling pastures of Tennessee. The daily chores required to maintain an operating farm superseded any threat of wars in foreign countries or financial meltdowns.
“My uncle, John Holt, operated an extensive farm here,” Witherspoon recalls from his seat in the lower house’s foyer.
“We had all kinds of things going on, even a sawmill at one time on the farm. We had a dairy barn and sold milk to a company in Nashville. We had sheep, pigs, some goats, horses, mules. We used mules to operate the farm equipment until around 1940 when we switched over to tractors and other mechanical tools.”
Witherspoon speaks of his childhood with an ease reflective of the land. Although the nearest neighbor was miles away, he never had feelings of isolation.
“I didn’t find it lonely at all. I was able to entertain myself pretty much riding horses and ponies, riding bicycle. Playing around in the big woodpile in the back. I used to enjoy playing out there jumping from log to log, that kind of thing. I’d invent games and things to do to pass the time. Did a lot of reading also.”
Witherspoon also said throughout the original 1,200-acre property there were as many as six African-American families living on various parts of the farm as caretakers. Their children became his best friends in a time where racism and segregation dominated the South.
“I certainly did not feel that they were anything other than my friends and treated them with courtesy. There was always a good feeling that we had. I had no problem with associating with them and look back on it with a good deal of regard for the pleasant nature of the relationships there,” he recalled.
“There was a lot of segregation of course during that time but we did not observe any of the laws of segregation in our relationship”
The Holt family escaped the Great Depression and World War II relatively unaffected, Witherspoon said. A child at the time, he has vague memories of food and other commodities being rationed and of other children at school dressed in rags. He can recall certain anxious conversations between his family over taxes, but ultimately the family weathered the depression and did not lose the farm.
Witherspoon’s mother, Kate, died when he was 12 and her sister, Rose Holt, moved onto the farm to help with the family until his father remarried a few years later.
Meanwhile, Witherspoon attended Hillsboro High School in Davidson County and he went on to become an English teacher for the Metro school system. He also gave private music lessons and became the organist for the Brentwood United Methodist Church, a position he’d hold for more than 30 years.
In 1965, Witherspoon shuttered Wildwood mansion.
After the death of his father, he made the pragmatic decision to move into the lower house with his aunt and uncle, O’Dell and John. The mansion was difficult to maintain, had no central heating and was too big for one person.
“I didn’t really feel a sense of loss because I was still close to the house and could go up there if I wanted to. In fact, I had some books in a room that I made into a study, and I used it for a while.”
Around 1970, the family began selling off the antiques inside Wildwood. The only item Witherspoon refused to part with is an old piano that was shipped up the Mississippi River from New Orleans sometime in the early 1840s, he said. That piano still remains inside Wildwood.
It was during the 1970s that Witherspoon could feel a real change coming to Brentwood, he says.
“The growth was of course gradual, but accelerated after 1970 when the city was incorporated. Then things really began to develop.”
As Nashville grew, so did Brentwood. The predominately rural land was quickly giving way to sprawling subdivisions and mansions.
“It’s something I accepted as inevitable. I did like the feel of openness and the green pasture areas where you could drive and not see houses, but I feel like it’s something that was inevitable, considering our closeness to an expanding city like Nashville.
“One of the things that has bothered me about these large houses and subdivisions is that you have enormous mansion-like houses and very little space between them. I think if you have a great big house you ought to have several acres around it. But I accept the fact that’s not possible.”
Then, in 1984, John Holt decided to sell off almost 80 percent of his property land that became the Raintree Forest subdivision.
“My uncle felt at that time that he was 94, that he would not be around too much longer and felt the need to do something,” Witherspoon recalls. “We talked about it some and he said he was waiting for the recession of that period to be over and then he wanted to sell the property and I agreed with him that it was the best thing to do.”
Witherspoon reiterated similar sentiments when speaking of his own decision to sell the remaining 257 acres.
“I’m 87 and I’m not going to live another 50 years, I suppose. And I felt like I needed to consider doing something with the farm while I’m still able to make some judgments.”
Witherspoon will receive half of the $12 million from Pearl Street Partners and designate the other half for Brentwood United Methodist Church, as per aunt O’Dell Holt’s will.
Witherspoon never married and has no heirs.Ã‚Â He said it would have been nice to have someone to pass the farm to; that it’s what his aunt would have preferred.
“But as it happened, it did not turn out that way.”
As a part of the sale, he will be able to live the remainder of his life in the lower house. He hopes that the developer will be able to leave the front lawn as is, despite the construction to come.
Pearl Street Partners will also be responsible for a complete renovation of Wildwood mansion. The firm said they expect the sale to go through sometime next year, and declined to comment on future plans for the mansion and the property.
However, there is no doubt the land will soon be tamed, despite still having a wild feeling of just being discovered. Witherspoon’s comments to Brentwood Home Page were bookended by long periods of silence when asked if he will miss the land his family lived on for more than 300 years.
“There’ll be a change of course. And I may miss it, I don’t know. But I’m not going to let it worry me or bother me. I would be sorry to see some of the landscape be changed drastically I’m so used to looking to the back and seeing hills and pastures and so on. I know that will change. But I’m not going to let it bother me.”
Witherspoon has remained an active member of the community, especially with his church. Any other leftover proceeds from the property’s sale will go to the City of Brentwood, as mandated by another clause in O’Dell Holt’s will.
Yet, it should be noted the sale represents the end of the line for one of the oldest families in Brentwood’s history, and a reason to give pause for the ever-diminishing open space in an area caught between two burgeoning cities.
Witherspoon said he never thought of preservation as an option, like the Reese Smith Jr. family did with Ravenswood.
And yet, he said the sale is not cause for celebration
“I think it’s just something to pass.”
Staff writer Jonathan Romeo covers the city of Brentwood. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.